by Noah Lugeons
Sometimes people say, “Noah, you belittle Christians a lot.”
And I respond, “Yeah, I do my best.”
So no, I’ll be offering no apology for it here or anywhere else in the foreseeable future. When people point out that I belittle Christians, I respond the same way that an Olympic sprinter would respond if somebody asked her why she was in such a hurry… After all, that’s kind of the point.
Now, there are those that would say that this is counterproductive. They say that the caustic brand of atheism I subscribe to is antithetical to the goals of minimizing the role of religion in society. They present a “circle-the-wagons” mentality that I might inspire if I’m too insulting. They point out that the more attainable goals of keeping religion out of science class and the courtroom can be hamstrung by the more grandiose goal of stamping out organized religion altogether.
And what’s more, they might be right. I still don’t care.
My goal as an atheist activist is to marginalize religion. I work toward a world where anybody who believes in something without evidence is embarrassed to admit it in public. I want reason by way of shame.
I think it’s a sad commentary on our culture that my unwavering belief that all truth-claims should be subjected to the same scrutiny puts me in the extreme wing of a minority. That shouldn’t be a bold stance. It should be nearly unthinkable to take any other stance and that’s precisely what I seek.
To be fair, I’ll concede that it’s entirely possible to take that stance without belittling anyone. A lot of skeptics do yeoman’s work by patiently walking sasquatch hunters, UFOlogists and homeopaths through the ladder of logic without a hint of condescension. I admire that ability but I do not share it.
And of course, many skeptics are crass and dismissive of nonsense like sasquatch hunters, UFOs and homeopathy. They don’t bother to spare anyone’s feelings and simply treat it like the demonstrable bullshit that it is. In the skeptical movement the battle between “soft” and “hard” is a hell of a lot more muted than the one in the atheist movement, but it’s still there. Some people just insist that the “kill-them-with-kindness” approach is the only valid one.
Many much wiser observers than me have pointed out that there probably isn’t one “valid” approach, so I’m not going to spend any time retreading that ground, but there is something I’d like to offer to the kindness camp. Sure, it’s an anecdote and can thus be easily dismissed, but I think it’s illustrative of the justification behind the approach that I share with a number of other scathing atheists.
Arrogance is a powerful force. Those of us who like to think or ourselves as intelligent don’t like to be told we’re stupid. It’s the only insult that really gets under the skin of some people. Now, when somebody says, “you disagree with me so you’re stupid” it’s meaningless, but if someone you respect intellectually lumps your beliefs in with a bunch of the other “stupid” ones, that has an impact.
I’m not saying there’s anyone out there that respects me intellectually, but there are a number of learned men and women in both the atheist and skeptical movements who sport intellects that are beyond reproach. An intellectually arrogant person hearing that his beliefs are stupid from those people will have an effect.
Now sure, some people are arrogant enough to just toss off the insult and say, “what does that ivy-league professor know?”, but those people are all-but unreachable. But for many if not most intellectually arrogant people, the root of the arrogance was real intelligence. And there are plenty of intelligent, arrogant people out there that still believe in some really silly stuff.
Those people are vulnerable to the caustic attack. I know because that’s how I arrived here. I got to atheism through simple observation and the correct application of logic, but I became a skeptic and (more importantly) a skeptical activist because somebody with an intellect I admire told me I was a dumb-ass. And what’s more, he didn’t try to cater to my ego by telling me how okay it was to still believe this dumb-ass belief.
Now I know that the research shows that most people are far more inclined to listen to and consider your viewpoint if you’re non-confrontational and I recognize that, generally speaking, this is the optimum approach. Hell, it’s the one I usually employ when I’m talking to someone in person. But just because it’s the most widely applicable approach doesn’t mean it’s the only correct one. A person like myself would never be swayed by it, as they would take the agreeable demeanor as a sign of intellectual uncertainty. They would toss off anything you said that didn’t crack the armor of their intellectual arrogance and the only way to do that is to be caustic.
My mother told me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything. And a lot of people have told me the same thing since. I get it. I disagree. I feel that it would be intellectually dishonest to say anything nice and it would be socially irresponsible to stay silent.
And if you disagree with my approach, that’s fine. I strongly encourage you to get involved and run as far in the opposite direction as possible. We need all the help we can get. And I believe that we also need all the types of help we can get.